Handguns are more lethal in mass shootings than "assault weapon" rifles

Posted on: Tue, 03/19/2019 - 11:59 By: Tom Swiss
rifle and handgun. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Elliott Sprehe

The massacre of people at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white nationalist asshat has yet again ramped up calls for more bans on ugly guns ("assault weapons", so-called). Ironically this is exactly what the shooter wanted, as he believes (or at least stated, in a manifesto that exhibits a whole lot of trolling behavior) that threats to the right to keep and bear arms in the US could help trigger a race war.

I have repeatedly pointed out to my hoplophobic friends that handguns are used more often in mass shootings than rifles or shotguns (collectively, "long guns") are, and that at close range a handgun is quite lethal enough to do the job. And I've said that if, fates forfend, I were ever in a situation where as an absolute last resort I had to try to take down an active shooter, I might have a better chance getting a cumbersome long gun away from an attacker than a handgun.

And I've pointed out the interesting narrative switch from the 1980s, when "gun control" was almost synonymous with "handgun control", and there was even a message that if you wanted a gun to defend your home you should get a rifle, and not one of those nasty handguns which are only used by criminals. (I specifically remember an anvilicious episode of "Quincy, M.E." with that message. And somewhere in my attic is a high school paper I wrote advocating for more handgun control. We live, we learn.)

It may be that the obvious failure of handgun control laws to stop "ordinary" homicide motivated the change in narrative.

But I did not expect this finding from a study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, that in examining 23 "civilian public mass shootings" (a category defined by the FBI and Congressional Research Service to exclude familicides or shootings in the course of a robbery or other ordinary criminal motive) from 2000 to 2016, shootings using a handgun were more lethal than those using a rifle, while shootings using a rifle resulted in more people being shot.

Now, it is worth noting that this period included two events that -- at least, in the context of violence before 2016 -- are statistical outliers, the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting and the Las Vegas Route 91 shooting. But their analysis of wounding patterns is still remarkable -- though it contains two large flaws, which we'll get to in a moment:

Our study found that events purely associated with a rifle resulted in a much larger number of people injured, but a smaller number of people killed. The results were not statistically different due to small sample size, but the absolute magnitude of difference between rifle- and nonrifle-associated events appeared large. We cannot account for this finding with confidence, but a possible explanation may be that rifles are likely to have a higher capacity magazine than handguns, thereby allowing the shooter to fire more rounds before needing to reload. However, our study also found that the number of gunshot wounds per patient was significantly higher in handgun-associated events, as compared with other firearm types. Again, we cannot know for certain why this difference exists, but 1 possibility is that the higher energy transfer associated with a rifle results in the victim collapsing, thereby making a second wounding of the same victim less likely. Another possibility is that it may be easier for the shooter to fire multiple rounds quickly and accurately using a handgun than a rifle, thereby increasing the probability of the victim being hit multiple times.

It is true that the default magazine capacity for rifles is often larger then that for handguns, but extended capacity magazines are readily available -- prohibition laws notwithstanding. But even at the same capacity, an assailant can carry more handgun magazines and more ammunition; and reloading does not seem to be much of an impediment to mass shooters.

More problematic to their analysis is a factor the authors seem not to have considered: there may be a difference in the shooters who use rifles versus handguns. (Have I mentioned before the that understanding and solving the problem of human violence requires us to focus on people, not on things? Well, let me say it again.)

Some mass shooters, it seems, exhibit the same "amok" syndrome reported among the Malay centuries ago, sudden and unprovoked mas murder committed by individuals with a history of mental illness. Such attacks tend to be relatively impulsive, with only hours or a few days between the decision to attack and the violence.

But there are also attacks that are carefully planned in advance -- and part of that planning is to maximize the psychological impact of the attack, to inspire terror and to make the killers notorious.

In the Western world, all these mass shootings occur in the shadow of Columbine, where the murderers planned their attack for months. The attack created a sort of paramilitary "massacre chic", a script for future attacks. According to Professor Ralph W. Larkin, "the Columbine shootings have attained a mythical existence and have influenced subsequent rampages."

And part of that script is the use of guns that are deemed "extra scary" by mainstream media and society -- remember that fear and notoriety is part of the goal. The Columbine attackers did not use AR-15 style "modern sporting rifles", which were not particularly notorious at the time, but they used a TEC-9DC, a style of handgun made to look like the banned TEC-9, over any other sort of handgun; and a Hi-Point Carbine, a gun later banned as an "assault weapon" in some states.

In other words, people whose motive is to committing the most terrifying attacks possible may chose modern sporting rifles exactly because these weapons are more feared by a firearms-naive populace, rather than because they are more effective at killing.

Indeed, if an attacker were focused on the most deaths, it's unlikely they would use firearms: fire and explosives are far more effective for mass killing. (That was part of the Columbine killer's plan; we can only be grateful that they were bad bomb-makers.)

And so approaches to violence prevention that focus on changing the availability of specific tools are doomed to be ineffective.

(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Elliott Sprehe)